I’m standing at the water’s edge of the sea pool at Summerleaze Beach. And I can completely understand why I’m virtually alone. Most people don’t see the point of spending a baltic Christmas Day plonking themselves into 2 degree seawater. I mean lets be honest, stepping into the sea in December is pretty awful. Every cell shouts: SAVE YOURSELF. GET OUT OF THE WATER. There’s something about swimming in cold water that touches a nerve among right-thinking people. Instinctively, they feel that it’s dangerous or somehow rebbelious. And in many ways, it is.
The key reason people withstand the agony, is the flood of endorphins that flood the brain, resulting in an incredible sense of euphoria and calm. And it is true. I could be in the foulest of moods and as soon as my toe touches the water, my mind and body is transported elsewhere, and I return to child-like joy. Once emerged from the silky waters, you are reborn with a renewed zest for life. Even in the depths of winter, when temperatures are close to zero, the whole ritual of cold water swimming will enlighten even the darkest of spirits.
Even as I write this blog post, I can’t wait to get back in the water. My mum thinks I’m mad. I’m someone that has an overactive brain, partly I think due to being a Pisces, and partly (mainly) due to my pothead youth, which is a whole other blog post. Anyway, I’ve found exercise a great way to combat stress and anxiety, but over the last lockdown I don’t know about you but I’ve really struggled with motivation. However since starting cold water swimming I can safely say I am converted. A swim in cold water will clear any stresses or worries from my mind, quieting all the noise that comes from a busy schedule and overthinking, and I feel SO much better for it. So much so that I’ve actually stopped taking antidepressants which I’d started taking a couple years back.
While anecdotal evidence is encouraging, science is really only just starting to unpick the physiological reasons why a chilly dip is so restorative. In 2018, the British Medical Journal published a report on cold water swimming as a treatment for depression. The report looks at the physical responses to swimming in cold water, specifically stress response. Immersing yourself in cold water puts your body into fight or flight mode. The more you repeat the experience, you diminish this stress response. And having a better hold on your stress response means stronger coping mechanisms to deal with life’s many peaks and troughs.
The report explores this diminished stress response, and activating what is called the parasympathetic nervous system. Sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ system, it is responsible for slowing your heart rate and increasing intestinal and gland activity. A major component of this system is the vagus nerve (VN), which connects the brain to organs including the heart and lungs. It is the largest nerve in the body and it is vagal tone that is linked to mental health. A high vagal tone means your body will recover and relax faster after stress. One way in which you can stimulate the vagus nerve and increase vagal tone is through cold water swimming. A dip in the big blue has been shown to help a range of mental health and nervous conditions and could even protect the brain from degenerative diseases such as dementia, according to a team of researchers led by Prof Giovanna Mallucci, head of the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge.
I’ve seen lots of cold water swimmings at my local pool donning neoprene gloves and boots/socks. Whether you need a full wetsuit to get you in the water, or just a woolly hat, depends on a few elements, starting with how used to cold water you are. “Between five and six immersions of between three and five minutes,” says Heather Massey, a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environments Laboratory, is enough to acclimatise yourself to the cold shock. After that, don’t worry if you miss a week because even after a year, “you retain about half of that habituation response”. This month I’ve made four trips into the big blue and I can happily report that each time has been noticeably easier to withstand.
The cold-shock response, an instant involuntary reaction to cold-water immersion involving rapid breathing (hyperventilation) and a pounding heart, can cause you to get into difficulty and hypothermia awaits if exposed for too long. When submersed in cold water, your blood pressure shoots up as your body tries to keep your blood warm by moving it towards the middle of your body (this is why you go pale when you’re cold) and functioning of the limbs will increasingly weaken as blood flows to the core body to maintain warmth.
Never underestimate after-drop. If you’ve done any swimming in cool water, you may even have experienced it. For the uninitiated, after-drop refers to the reduction in your core body temperature when you get out of the water. When you take a dip in cool water the body responds by protecting vital organs by lowering blood flow to the limbs & skin. Resulting in your core staying nice and toasty whilst your extremities (skin, arms and legs) cool. This is called peripheral vasoconstriction. As soon as you get out of the water, peripheral vasoconstriction ends. Cold blood from your limbs and skin returns to your core where it mixes with warmer blood thereby causing your inner body temperature to drop, even if you’re warmly dressed and move into a warm environment. You’ll notice that you often only start shivering 10 to 15 minutes after leaving the water. Which is why a good post-swim routine is critical.
Cold water swimming teaches self-discipline. The way to feel comfortable in cold water is to relax your muscles, when your impulse is to do the very opposite. When I first tried cold water swimming, I would tense every muscle in my body. But taking a deep breath every few strokes helps to set a reassuring rythym. At any temperature, swimming is glorious. “If I were called in/To construct a religion/I should make use of water” the poet Phillip Larkin wrote. “My liturgy would employ/Images of sousing,/A furious devout drench.” Right now we’re living in unprecedented times, a uniquely difficult moment in time. We are fed up, anxious and in need of transformation. If you are lucky enough to be near the coast, or body of water suitable for swimming, then, follow Larkin’s advice. Make use of water, and be renewed.
Thinking about trying cold water swimming?
- Join a local group for safety and that all-important team spirit. Or at least swim with a buddy.
- Start small & dip at least once a week to get acclimatised
- Get in quick – it takes 90-120 seconds for the initial cold-water shock to wear off
- Don’t dive in – hyperventilating underwater is bad!
- Gently exhale as you enter the water
- Listen to your body and don’t stay in for too long. As soon as you start feeling warm, thats the time to get out & get dressed
- The same applies if muscles in your arms or legs start to feel a bit unruly
- Bring layers, a warm drink and a hat for afterwards
- Invest in a decent dry robe such as Passenger or dryrobe, which will make getting dressed a doddle and also doubles up as a poncho
- Jumping in hot a shower or bath as soon as you get home should be avoided